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In Conversation with... Mark Chaban, Microsoft

This month we are talking to Mark Chaban, Area Director of Education for Microsoft Middle East & Africa. He talks about E-safety, what he believes are crucial skills to any young person in the UAE and what we can expect from Microsoft at GESS 2014.

How long have you been working for Microsoft? Please describe your role? 
I am the Area Director of Education for Microsoft Middle East & Africa where I head a team of senior managers driving the education strategy, education partner eco-system, education solutions, and revenue growth in 79 countries throughout three continents.   I am passionate for the role technology plays in education transformation and committed to the Microsoft vision to make “Anytime Anywhere Learning for All” a reality. 
Before taking my current role, I was the Director of Server and Cloud Platform business group (BG); and oversaw the infrastructure marketing strategy, which spans Identity and Security, Management, Virtualization and Windows Server. 
I will be celebrating my 10th anniversary with Microsoft in January 2013.
When and how did you enter the UAE market?
Microsoft Gulf opened its Dubai-based headquarters in 1991 and today oversees Microsoft activities in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE. Establishing the company headquarters here seemed like a natural step as the speed at which the industry was growing locally and the government’s investment in IT were both evident. 
Were there any difficulties/barriers you came across? If so what were these, and what advice would you give to other companies entering this market?
One experiences challenges when starting out in any new environment, however the opportunities far outweighed the challenges. The UAE has developed into a technology hub and we are very fortunate to have been a part of this development from the very beginning. We constantly work with both consumers and governments to look at how best we can support them in their ambitious plans for the evolution of the local industry and work to provide the tools to ensure that they succeed. The advice I would give to other companies is to make an effort to truly understand the local market. All too often companies group the Middle East as one large market, with the same requirements and needs across every country. It is important to understand that each individual market has its particularities and specific requirements.
You have exhibited with us before, what advice would you give for first time exhibitors at GESS to maximise ROI and increase traffic to their stand?
Interactivity is key; not only personal interactivity with visitors, but also ensuring that your stand and products are interactive. Last year, Microsoft had 16 Windows 8 devices demonstrating the diversity of form factors that Windows 8 brings, as well as Office 13. Four Microsoft partners, ITWorx, Inter Connect, Net-Support and Diwan, were also on hand to showcase solutions that complement windows and office to achieve a world class learning experience. All of this provided visitors with an immersive experience at the Microsoft booth.
Social media is seen as fundamental to business success. Would you agree and how have you managed this aspect of your marketing?
Social media is definitely essential for doing business in the modern world; it provides businesses with a personalized platform to connect with customers directly and in real-time. No other platform can communicate with customers in the way that social media has been able to, allowing businesses to connect with their customers while also shaping their perceptions of products and services. At Microsoft, we have taken great steps to ensure that social media is a fully integrated platform in our marketing plan, working hand in hand with public relations and advertising to ensure that our communication with our customers is aligned on all fronts.
Customers can follow us on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/MicrosoftGulf), Twitter (https://twitter.com/microsoftgulf).
How does Microsoft maximise ROI and brand awareness through social media?
Successful social media measurement starts by challenging the traditional ROI approach. Instead of calculating returns in terms of customer response, we consider what motivates consumers to use social media, and then measure how much of their online engagement is with our brands, viewing this engagement as their social media investment. This approach takes into account short, medium and long-term marketing goals, from launching a three-month online campaign to reducing costs one quarter by switching to online forums as the primary medium of outreach in engaging the public.
What tips would you give to companies that are just starting to use social media, especially when wanting to increase buzz onsite at exhibitions?
Maintaining a strong social media presence is an efficient way to build your corporate reputation and showcase your strengths. This requires a constant pulse on everything that’s going on with your brand, the competition, and the general buzz on the social networks.  Shifting your voice from a re-tweeter/re-blogger, to a voice that predicts trends, or starts discussions can help rebrand your company as an industry leader. The basic fact remains that people simply enjoy being associated with corporations that are proactive in building a healthy virtual community for likeminded consumers. Studies have discovered that customers would purchase from businesses with an active Facebook fan page rather than without. For the education sector, universities and institutions need to have a certain level of web savvy in order to reach a socially connected younger demographic. If consumers see companies with a strong social media presence as reliable, prospective students would weight educational facilities at even higher standards. Onsite, companies could maximize the potential of live tweeting to attract students to their stands. If companies had educational games onsite, they could live tweet the performance of their participants and could further involve the crowd by tagging visitors and the GESS event as a whole. Online giveaways through Facebook are crowd-pullers at most events, as well, where small token prizes are given to those who answer simple questions about your company while simultaneously sharing your post to their group of friends. This pyramid-like marketing stream has a lot of potential to drive foot traffic at events.
This year’s theme for GEF, our conference programme, is 'Education and the 21st Century: Skills, Opportunities and Challenges. What skills do you think are crucial to any young person studying in the UAE who intends to enhance their future career?
Youth employment prospects are still a massive challenge in the Middle East, with millions out of work because they simply lack the skills that make them employable in any economic climate. Communication skills are vital in our highly competitive workforce, where those who are effectively bilingual definitely have an edge over the rest. Of course, speaking multiple regional languages isn’t enough. Communication skills include having a strong emotional quotient, knowing how to behave in various social situations, and knowing how to balance humility with a healthy self-esteem. More often than not, qualified graduates lose out in the job market because they lack these basic behavioural skills that could benefit them in the future as well. There may be a misconception that jobs in the ICT sector don’t require communication or people skills, but that couldn’t be further than the truth. Most candidates who apply for entry level jobs have the same qualifications. What seals the deal is the way they manoeuvre themselves in the office environment. The higher up they go in the working world, the more crucial these skills become.
Who would you like to see at GEF 2014 and what issues surrounding education would you like to see being discussed?
As this region blooms economically, the education sector is bound to see a sharp spike. Statistically, the Middle East has an extremely young population, who are extremely comfortable with high-tech gadgetry and the wonders of the internet. It would be interesting to see discussions on how IT skills can be woven into local school curricula in the region, starting from nursery-aged children to university students. We’ve moved away from the days of having separate ICT classes, and the ubiquity of technology makes it imperative for educators to embrace the holistic educational potential of apps and other software to take learning beyond the classroom.
E-safety is a big issue being talked about the in the UAE at the moment, what are your top tips for teachers with this in mind?
While it is encouraging to see that UAE youths are quickly adapting to social media and utilizing digital channels, with those digital channels comes a threat of cyber bullying, harassment and identity theft, amongst other cyber crimes. The key to combating this threat is prevention; schools and teachers need to raise awareness on social media and cyber safety at school, while parents need to do the same at home. It is imperative that we educate children and young adults so that they are able to identify potential threats and exercise caution when sharing personal information online.
Are there any new projects in the pipeline for Microsoft in EMEA?
Our focus remains to equip students to best adapt to that change for a globally competitive world and we will continue working with governments, communities, schools, and educators in the Middle East and Africa to use the power of information technology to deliver technology, services, and programs that provide anytime, anywhere learning for all.
For example, Microsoft closely with the UAE Mohammed bin Rashed Smart Learning Initiative to provide teachers and students in the classroom with access to the latest technology. The Mohammed Bin Rashid Program for Smart Learning began with a number of partnerships with leading international companies in the field of technology and education, including Microsoft, in-line with the Program’s commitment to provide the latest techniques and applications in the smart learning process through the latest findings of the leading companies in this field. The culmination of all these efforts are part of the Program’s quest to ensure quality and to be a pioneer in the field of smart learning in the region and the world.
What can we expect from Microsoft at GESS this year?
This year Microsoft plans to showcase how it is working to bring the benefits of technology and technology skills to all. Together with our stakeholders we share the ultimate aim of being able to use technology to help improve education and learning, create opportunity, and raise living standards for people around the world. Our mission is to help learners and educators throughout the world realize their full potential, and for this reason Microsoft partners with education communities around the world to deliver a relevant and effective scalable set of technologies, services that focus the contributions of many on improved learning outcomes for the individual.  
Founded in 1975, Microsoft (NASDAQ:'MSFT') is the worldwide leader in software, services and solutions that help people and businesses realize their full potential. Microsoft Gulf opened its Dubai-based headquarters in 1991. Microsoft Gulf today oversees Microsoft activities in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE. Microsoft Corporation's address on the worldwide web is: www.microsoft.com and Microsoft’s Gulf web site is: www.microsoft.com/gulf.